Food for Thought

Forty percent of the food produced in the United States is thrown away before it ever reaches a plate, according to a report published in August by the National Resources Defense Council. Meanwhile, 50 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

A growing network of non-profits is asking the question: why can’t we solve America’s hunger problem by using food more efficiently?

In the Boston area, there are several groups linking food suppliers with the hungry, collecting fruits and vegetables that aren’t pretty enough to be sold – but are perfectly edible – and delivering them to food pantries.  But what sounds like a simple solution isn’t.

Although it’s easy to get grocery stores to donate because of tax write-offs, it’s hard to get funding for non-profits to make these connections. And it can be difficult to convince hungry people that they’re better off learning how to cook with beets and cabbage than subsisting on inexpensive junk food.

Waste Not. Want Not.

Waste Not. Want Not.

“Our food system is trying to serve a culture that expects everything all the time,” said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free. “It’s really easy to waste and I don’t think people really appreciate or recognize the issues.”

Established in 1981, Food for Free has been redistributing perfectly good produce from local grocery stores, wholesalers, and farmers that would otherwise be destined for landfills. They make deliveries to over 80 food assistance programs in Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Medford, Peabody, and Somerville.

Jonathan Bloom, author of the new book Wasted in America, contributor to the NRDC report, and former Food for Free volunteer said, “When I saw the sheer quantity and quality of food recovered, it made me wonder why so much food falls between the cracks.”

Cracks exist at every level of the food supply chain. The food Bloom refers to is perfectly edible but for some reason cannot be sold. Instead it is thrown into dumpsters and considered lost. In developed countries like the United States, at least 10 percent of the total food supply is lost at the retail level—especially produce. This is because industry standards integrate waste into the business model and encourage wasteful consumer behavior.

“A lot of things we donate we feel isn’t up to good enough quality for our customers, but we feel is still salvageable,” said Jeff Barry, president of Boston Organics, a local distributor of organic produce that frequently donates to Food for Free.  “It’s usually minor aesthetic damage,” he said. “Usually, it’s perfectly fine [to eat].”

Retailers also overstock displays to appeal to customers. Dana Gunders of the NRDC reports that overstocking causes “over-handling by both staff and customers and damage to items on the bottom from the accumulated weight.” Basically, produce has an image problem and retail practices aren’t helping.

But the major roadblock in decreasing waste for retailers is the limited flexibility of the system. Fresh produce comes in preset quantities according to case size, so if the case has more product than the retailer needs, they are left with extra that will likely not sell, according to the NRDC report.

With so much food wasted, it is only natural to try to put it in the hands of the hungry.Yet this rarely happens.

“We have enough agricultural production to meet the calorie and protein needs of the population,” said US Department of Agriculture Sociologist Mark Nord. The problem, he said, is access to food is limited by socioeconomic factors.

Though the stereotype of “hunger” looks like sallow-cheeked children in Africa, in America, the face of hunger is often more subtle.  The hungry in America are often not starving, but food-insecure. They wake up in a house with no food, and no promise of three meals. They have to eat junk food because the 99-cent value meal is all they can afford. But it’s not always easy to tell that a neighbor, coworker or classmate is undernourished.

“It’s mostly working families and people who have an income and they are able to buy some food but they need that extra help,” said Tim Severyn of East End House. “With other costs adding up, extra help on food helps them make it through the month.”

East End House is a community center and food pantry that serves approximately 350 people in East Cambridge and the surrounding neighborhoods every week. Severyn said they offer a weekly market where recipients can come in and “shop” for food.

Although East End House offers a variety of fresh produce thanks to Food for Free, some people are still hesitant to take the fruits and vegetables. Prepackaged, non-perishable, and processed food pervade the shelves of food pantries in the U.S., and people who utilize the emergency food system may not know what to do with kiwi fruits or have the time or knowledge to cook beets.

In order to warm recipients’ attitudes toward produce, Severyn provides simple recipes for the produce available in the pantry. “It’s a slow process to adjust food culture, but I think people are appreciating [healthy food] a lot more than they were a few years ago,” he said.

Food for free has a sizeable impact on the waste and insecurity problem in Greater Boston. In 2011, they delivered over 1 million pounds of food and fed more than 25,000 people, said Purpura.

“We are picking up food at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, we are picking up gorgeous food and saying thank you and they are saying thank you in return,” she said.

What doesn’t come from markets comes directly from Food for Free—with the help of a local farm, they grow organic produce to donate into the system, something that no other rescue non-profit in Boston is doing.

Farmer Ari Kurtz hosts Food for Free’s Field of Greens program at his farm in Lincoln. Kurtz provides a quarter-acre of land along with tools, seeds, and guidance in order to grow 4,000 to 8,000 pounds of nutrient-dense vegetables for distribution to local food programs every year. Typical crops include cabbage, beets, carrots, kale, chard, and collards.

For all of the good that food rescue does, it still cannot do enough. “We barely touch it,” said Purpura. “There is not an infrastructure to deal with food waste, there isn’t money in what we’re doing, so you don’t get a lot of non-profits popping up,” she said, adding that a handful of non-profit organizations cannot possibly solve all of these issues.

Bloom said other players need to be involved to make a serious dent in hunger and waste. “I think the major participant I’d like to see involved is the federal government whether it’s through the USDA, EPA, FDA, and in my wildest dreams the executive branch,” he said.

“Bridging the gap between waste and want” is the slogan of Food for Free. Crossing that bridge is a slow and complicated process. “If there were the social and political will to eliminate hunger,” said Bloom, “we could make hunger obsolete.”

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